The Evil Within Review
Falls in a lackluster middle ground and never quite terrifies
Eighteen years ago, Shinji Mikami paved the way forward for the survival horror genre with his zombie classic, Resident Evil. Now, Mikami returns to the genre with a new studio, Tango Gameworks, and a new franchise in The Evil Within. Since Resident Evil came out nearly two decades ago, the survival horror genre has seen some more reinvention with games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast creating first-person, combat-less, run-for-your-life adventures. Mikami’s take on survival horror almost feels like a throwback; but is it a timeless classic or failure to remain relevant?
The Evil Within tries to spin a story of supernatural science and perverse violence. The true narrative is fragmented and hard to follow; partly told through cutscenes, partly told through newspaper articles, and partly told through diary entries. It’s all a bit ambiguous, but some of that feels intentional, as Mikami tries to tell his story through a series of disconnected memories. The best I can do to summarize the plot and remain spoiler free is to say that our hero, Sebastian Castellanos, and his partners stumble into a mind-link with a mad scientist who leads them through a series of horrific and demented memories. Each detective seems to have their own theories on what is happening and why, but the truth remains vague throughout the game’s narrative, even after the credits roll.
It’s all a bit dry and uninteresting, really. The voice acting isn’t great and the writing is pretty cliche. Sebastian feels like the cookie-cutter action hero and not quite human. He never seems terrified and acts as if the bleeding walls, cult sacrifices and pools of dead bodies are just another day at the office. Since Sebastian isn’t scared, there’s no reason for you to be either. In fact, the cutscenes are actually the least scary part of the game because you know you can’t die. This wouldn’t be a big deal if there wasn’t so many of them.
The whole game is overly-long. The first ten hours might have you on the edge of your seat, but the suspense quickly dissolves in the last five hours as The Evil Within starts throwing in everything that you would expect from the most recent Resident Evil games. There are car chases with giant monsters, a chain gun for you to mow down enemies, and a rocket launcher you use to blast the face of a monster the size of a skyscraper. None of it is scary, all of it is bombastic, and it feels like a far cry from the dreary hallways and disgusting imagery the game uses early on to unsettle the player.
While the last third of The Evil Within loses its way, the game starts in a very convincing fashion. After being knocked unconscious, you find yourself tied up in a meat locker while some strange mutation of a man cuts apart a human body like he was working in a butcher shop. The bloody, gory spectacle sets a nice tone for The Evil Within and for those who came expecting the grotesque, you’re not going to be disappointed.
The gameplay itself involves a lot of sneaking around and praying you’re not spotted. This is the where the true suspense of The Evil Within lies. Even when the game gets into combat, you’re still encouraged to take on the encounters slowly, sneaking around and stealth killing enemies. Death isn’t the end for the undead Haunted -- the game's main enemies -- as they can come back to life if you make too much noise (e.g. gunshots and explosions) so each kill is followed by the difficult choice of whether or not you’re going to burn the body and use your limited amount of matches to do so. You never have enough matches required to burn all the bodies in a room, so you’re constantly leaving enemies behind, praying they stay dead.
When it comes to the survival aspect of survival horror, The Evil Within really nails it. Even on the recommended casual setting, I found myself constantly down to my last bullet, scrounging for any materials I could find. Your health regenerates about a quarter of the way full, and playing with full health is a bit of a luxury. A couple of times, the game bailed me out by throwing ten bullets at me here or an handful of health packs there; but for the most part the game really challenges your patience to conserve ammo and try to avoid unnecessary combat. With so many games focusing on players shooting first and ask questions later, The Evil Within would like to you think before you kill.
There is more to the game than linear sneaking levels. Mikami throws a few curveballs to keep you guessing. Traps are littered throughout the game, constantly punishing you if you’re throwing caution to the wind. Traps can particularly be troublesome when you’re involved in one of the game's great chase sequences. These traps can be disarmed, which gives you parts to make bolts for your multifunctional crossbow, which can be used to trap, explode, or simply shoot enemies. Unfortunately, bolts are the only thing that can be constructed, when it comes to regular ammo and health, you’ll have to find it or go without.
On top of the regular Haunted and the pesky traps, The Evil Within also employs a roster a bosses to fight that vary in creativity and fun. Sometimes the mechanics are as simple as dodging out of the way and unloading your weapons, but there are smarter encounters which are more nerve racking. Some bosses can’t be killed and force you to run. As these chase sequences become more complicated, they become more fun. One particular chase forces you to flip switches, stall your enemy, and avoid traps. When the game gets creative in these instances it really becomes a suspenseful blast.
The environments The Evil Within concocts for you to explore are perverse and wonderfully disgusting. While Mikami doesn’t ever conjure anything truly terrifying, the revolting imagery does keep you unnerved. The first handful of levels play like a highlight reel of horror locations. You get the church, the hospital, the rustic village, the empty mansion, and the underground laboratory. Each one boasts an equally disgusting boss with a twisted and grossly disfigured body. These dark and dingy locations are cliche, for sure, but they are undoubtedly effective, keeping you on the edge of your seat. Again, about two-thirds through the game these chilling locations are discarded and you find yourself navigating a way through an unnaturally distorted city, and that dampens the earlier unsettling atmosphere.
Each of these depraved worlds have safe rooms hidden away, indicated by the playing of classical piano music. In the safe room you will find a diary entry, giving background to Sebastian, and a mirror which transports you to a mental hospital -- the game’s central hub, so to speak -- where you can save your game and upgrade your character. Collecting green goop littered throughout levels allows you to improve the amount of ammo you can carry, how long you can sprint before you get winded, your damage output, and other necessities.
There are a few different things to collect in The Evil Within. As previously mentioned, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for jars of green goop -- yeah, it really doesn’t make sense, but whatever -- map fragments which don’t seem to serve much of purpose, and hidden keys that open lockers containing supplies in the mental hospital. On top of simply wanting to keep your supplies stocked, these collectibles will encourage you to explore the world. Which is great when the game is set in the chilling and haunting locales early on.
Running on new console hardware, you might be interested in the game because you want to see the next-generation of horror. How real do the brains look? How gross is the blood? Well, The Evil Within is a bit of a mixed bag on PlayStation 4. There are some texture pop-in issues, the frame rate dipped a couple of times, and the characters models are a little rigid. But, conversely, there are moments when the game looks fantastic, when you can see the blood and guts dripping off of Sebastian; or when the grotesque amalgamation of the limbs, flesh, and slime will leave your face twisted in revolt. The Evil Within is visually ambitious, but sometimes this ambition leaves the game technically flawed.
The Evil Within never is truly terrifying, but it is -- for the most part -- a good game. There is stiff writing and plenty of tropes littered in the early parts of the game, but they still serve to unsettle the player and add a nice flavor to the stealth based combat. The game zips you from one horrific location to the next and keeps you on the edge of your seat with tense chase sequences and disgusting creations. But after you get through the first ten hours, Mikami and Tango Gameworks seem creatively bankrupt. The cliches become overused, the world loses all sense of horror, machine guns begin blasting, and the monsters become impossibly large; you're left wondering where that intimate, intense, abhorrent experience went. The game lacks specificity, forethought, and the commitment that is required to really keep you involved and engaged in its world. For those excited about Mikami’s return to survival horror, I still think there are many things you will enjoy about the game. But ultimately The Evil Within falls in a lackluster middle ground; it doesn’t offer anything new to the genre, nor is it a true return to form for the classic Resident Evil creator. The Evil Within is the veritable definition of “okay”.